Black and White Program

To NIE, or not to NIE

December 24th, 2007 by Ben Bowser

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Following the exhaustive back-and-forth Weapons of Mass Destruction debate that culminated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the National Intelligence Council’s November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) should come as no surprise— except to those who read the last NIE. Conflicting with the statements of the 2005 report, the most recent estimate assessed that Iran put its nuclear program in stasis in 2003 and “had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007.” Furthermore, the document stated that it “judged with high confidence that Iran will not be technically capable of producing and reprocessing enough plutonium for a weapon before about 2015,” strongly conflicting with President Bush’s position that Iran stands as an imminent threat. But again, it was not long ago that his administration cried wolf, entered into a controversial war and returned empty handed, without a WMD (“CIA’s Final Report: No WMD Found in Iraq,” Associated Press, April 25, 2005). Only two months earlier Bush spoke of the potential for “World War III,” per The New York Times (“Bush Says Iran Nuclear Project Raises War Risk,” Oct. 17, 2007). However, judging by the language of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the war was already fought and won with Iran’s Enola Gay, the NIE, striking a critical blow. “This report … is announcing a victory for the Iranian nation in the nuclear issue against all international powers,” Ahmadinejad announced (“Iran Declares Victory after U.S. Atom Report,” Reuters News, Dec. 5, 2007). He added that Iran was ready for talks that were “honest and cooperative.”

While the President’s administration claims the report proves that international pressure works and that the NIE maintains that Tehran operated a covert nuclear facility (“Spinning the NIE Report,” Time, Dec. 5, 2007), the estimate conjures memories of the run-up to the now-tiring Iraq affair. The intelligence then was staggering. Recall that the October 2002 NIE assessment, titled “Iraq’s Continuing Programs of Weapons of Mass Destruction,” used such language as “high confidence” in its contention that Iraq was armed with biological and chemical weapons, as well as long-range missiles. Then the now former Secretary of State Colin Powell announced confidently to the United Nations on February 5, 2003, that Saddam Hussein sought high-specification aluminum tubes in an effort to prepare a nuclear bomb, because, as Powell, put it, “Hussein [was] determined to get his hands on a nuclear bomb.” There was also the yellowcake-Niger incident that Powell helped promote with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director George Tenet, leading to the President’s assertion in the State of the Union address that Iraq “sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa” in January 2003. Although this was disputed by U.S. diplomat Joseph Wilson in his column “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” The New York Times, July 6, 2003. Combine all of this with a grave warning, “the smoking gun— that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud (“Bush: Don’t Wait for Mushroom Cloud,” CNN, Oct. 8, 2002),” and the world will listen. But since the U.S. came back empty handed, will the world listen again?

And if the world listens, which voice should it listen to: the NIE or the Bush administration? Both are guilty of crying wolf and seemingly in concert, no less. Trusting the NIE following the Iraq-WMD routine in the early 2000s is difficult, but then again, this time it conflicts with the administration. Former Iraq weapons inspector and member of the Iraq Survey Group, David Kay told PBS’s Frontline that the above-mentioned 2002 NIE was created by “pressure” and it “was trying to drive towards a policy conclusion where the information just simply didn’t support it.” So, is this to say that the NIE toned its language down from the 2003 assessment to make amends for cracking under “pressure” in 2002 and 2003, or is it a shift due to stress from the growing anti-Bush sentiment?

Either way, the NIE opened a door, the possibility of dialogue with Iran, an opportunity that the U.S. might let slip away. A Dec. 11, 2007, Associated Press piece (“Bush Demands Iran Explain Nuke Program”) quoted Ahmadinejad as saying that Iran and the U.S. are only a few steps away from a resolution. He said, “If one or two other steps are taken, the issues we have in front of us will be entirely different and will lose their complexity, and the way will open for the resolution of basic issues in the region and in dealings between the two sides.” Meanwhile, others agree that the document offers an opportunity to open positive dialogue with Iran. Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London called the assessment “an astounding conclusion,” according to a report (“US Report Cools Crisis on Iran,” Dec. 4, 2007) published on the BBC News Web site. “It removes any possibility of a military strike in the next year. There would be no substantive cause and no public support,” Fitzpatrick said. Even Russia and China— both bearing mighty U.N. Security Council vetoes that can threaten further proposed sanctions against Iran— indicated that the NIE’s assertions prove the potential for a shift in foreign policy. China’s U.N. Ambassador Wang Guangya said in a Reuters News piece, “I think we all start from the presumption that now things have changed (“Bush and Allies Urge Pressure on Iran,” Dec. 4, 2007).” Mohamed ElBaradei, International Atomic Energy Agency director general, said in the same story that the assessment “should help to defuse the current crisis.”

But Bush doesn’t think we should exhale just yet: “Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous and Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon (“Bush and Allies Urge Pressure on Iran,” Reuters News, Dec. 4, 2007).” Note the intelligence report stated that Iran continues to enrich uranium in hopes of developing nuclear reactors for electricity, which Bush and other critics of Iran insist make it all the more simple for the country to amass enough fissile material to manufacture a warhead. Bush says that Iran needs to come clean on why they had a “covert” nuclear program in the first place, as well as why the nation hid the operation from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). As to be expected, Bush’s concerns were echoed by Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who continues to contend that Iran’s desire to develop a weapon drives the country’s “frenzied haste” to enrich uranium (“Olmert Says Iran Still Dangerous,” BBC News, Dec. 11, 2007). But Bush and Olmert aren’t alone. Both France and Germany stand with President Bush in their assertions that Iran is a threat. Citing the success of sanctions and international pressure in Iran freezing its nuclear weapons endeavor, President Nicolas Sarkozy contends that Iran as a threat persists: “Notwithstanding the latest elements, everyone is fully conscious of the fact that there is a will among the Iranian leaders to obtain nuclear weapons,” according to The International Herald Tribune (“France and Germany say Iran’s Nuclear Program Still a ‘Danger,’” Dec. 6, 2007).

The two nations came together on December 11, 2007, with the U.S., Britain, China and Russia to discuss a third round of sanctions against Iran, but after 90 minutes on the phone, U.N. diplomats said it was unlikely sanctions would come before 2008 (“UN Won’t Take Up Iran Sanctions in 2007,” Associated Press, Dec. 13, 2007). Given Russia and China’s support of Iran, they’ll likely fight to keep future sanctions from hitting Iran where it hurts— their pocket books. In the same Associated Press piece, anonymous diplomats said China opposes any sanctions that would interfere with trade, while Russia stands against anything that would interfere with Iranian banks. Considering Iran makes monthly payments of $25 million to Russian contractors building a nuclear power plant, their need to keep those banks open is essential (“Dispute Slowing Russian Work on Iran Nuclear Plant Said to Be Over,” The New York Times, Dec. 14, 2007). Secretary of State Condolezza Rice took Russia and China’s opposition into account, “We have some tactical differences with Russia, in particular, and to an extent, China, about timing, about the nature of any further sanctions (“US Admits ‘Tactical Differences’ with Russia, China on Iran,” Agence France-Press, Dec. 13, 2007).”

Note that not all of the language from Iran was hopeful, with Iran’s Ambassador to the U.N. Mohammed Khazee calling the report’s claims that Iran was researching nuclear weapons prior to 2003 “totally unfounded.” Khazee went on to say it was a part of the United State’s “fear mongering campaign … in order to deliberately mislead the Security Council and push it to take unlawful action against Iran (“UN Won’t Take Up Iran Sanctions in 2007,” Associated Press, Dec. 13, 2007).” And, as to be expected, Bush’s opponents proudly display the NIE as evidence that this administration was wrong about Iran. Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada and Senate Majority Leader, claimed the assessment “challeng[ed] some of this administration’s alarming rhetoric about the threat posed by Iran (“U.S. Finds Iran Halted Its Nuclear Arms Effort in 2003,” The New York Times, Dec. 3, 2007).”

Whether or not the NIE should be trusted, this could be the only opportunity to enter into discussions with Iran, which could unlock long-term development with the Middle East, something the U.S. desperately needs. Additional sanctions— though the first two rounds arguably resulted in progress in deterring nuclear development in Iran— could push Iran further away from the West and stir up unwanted pressure from China and Russia. With the new year upon us and new U.N. Security Council discussions to follow, the prospect of constructive foreign policy with Iran is still here, but not for much longer.

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